mon 27/05/2024

'Paul said he would like orchestral instruments John couldn’t be bothered' | reviews, news & interviews

'Paul said he would like orchestral instruments. John couldn’t be bothered'

'Paul said he would like orchestral instruments. John couldn’t be bothered'

How George Martin made the French horn an integral part of the Beatles sound

John Lennon holds a French horn, but Paul McCartney was the instrument's real fan

A decade ago I was sent to interview George Martin and his son Giles about Love, the remarkable remix of the Beatles catalogue which they created for Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles show in Las Vegas. After the interview proper, in which both talked about collaborating with each other and with Paul, Ringo and the widows of John and George, I asked Sir George Martin if we could talk about an area of particular interest to me.

I was working at the time on a book about the French horn, and part of the idea was to visit all the big moments in horn history. One of those was “For No One” (from Revolver) when the French horn became the first orchestral instrument to get a solo on a McCartney song (the flute nipped in ahead in the outro to Lennon’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”). It was Martin who introduced the Beatles to classical instrumentation. And chief among those instruments (as in Hollywood soundtracks) was the horn. So I asked him all about it.

JASPER REES: Alan Civil, who was the principal horn of the Philharmonia, was the soloist on “For No One”. How did he come to be booked?

GEORGE MARTIN: I remember Alan Civil was supposed to be the finest horn player we had in England at that time – although when I was younger I used to record Dennis Brain, who was a great character. I loved him. He used to play for a group that I recorded called Roberto Inglès and his Orchestra, which was a Latin American mock-up. In fact he was really Bob Ingles from Acton. He used to do very simple arrangements with strings and French horn. Dennis was always the chosen horn player. Alan Civil also was a fantastic player. I have a reputation in my scores, I’m afraid, for writing rather high parts for French horn, and I wrote a very high part for Alan.

Who said “We need a horn on this”?

I think probably it was me. Yes, I’m sure it was me, because Paul in those days would say, “What can we use here? What classical instrument can we use?” And I probably suggested the horn because I quite like the horn as a solo instrument. And we booked Alan and he came in and he looked at it and winced. We started overdubbing him. We got the performance that you hear on the record. And I thought, fantastic, that’s bloody marvellous. And Paul pressed the intercom and said: “That’s pretty nice, Alan, but I think we can do better, don’t you?” I turned to Paul and said: “You’ve just listened to one of the greatest performances of a horn that I think is possible.” He said: “He can do better than that, can’t he?” And he had no concept of how difficult it was. Nowadays horn players have different kinds of horn that will go more easily higher. Alan was playing on a regular horn, and by this time he was very red in the face, dying for a quick ciggie or whatever he wanted.

Did Paul hum a tune that he wanted?

Paul didn’t play it on an instrument. He hummed it and I think I was still writing it when Alan was coming in. Paul liked it. But that was a weird song altogether because the accompaniment was done on a clavichord, which I owned. Very metallic sound. There wasn’t much else to it really. A very very simple recording. It doesn’t get played much nowadays.

Did Alan Civil have a problem with the tuning of it?

No. Probably because we recorded on this clavichord which we tuned ourselves. I remember him having to tune a bit, but that was part and parcel of any instrument when they overdubbed in those days. They had to get used to it.

How long was he in the studio?

Three hours at a maximum. Two and a half probably. He probably didn’t think all that much about it. A job to be done.

I heard a story that he asked for a royalty. Is that likely?

No, that would never have happened. Impossible. That would have meant the Beatles were giving up something and they were mean bastards. EMI certainly wouldn’t do it. EMI are mean bastards if ever there were. They really were terrible.

How about the horn quartet on “Sgt Pepper”?

By the time we recorded the actual song we were convinced that we had to provide a band that were called Sgt Pepper. That was the artifice of the whole record eventually, that there should be a band performing a concert in lieu of the Beatles. A quartet of horns was the natural thing to have for something that was going to be like the opening of a show. (Pictured below: Paul McCartney with the horn quartet who performed "Sgt Pepper" at Live8 in 2005)

Again, whose idea was it?

I presume it was mine because in those days the Beatles didn’t know much about classical music. But I could be maligning Paul. He might say, “No it was my idea.”

The horn appears mostly on his songs.

Paul was very keen on orchestral instruments. In the case of “Penny Lane” he’d heard a Brandenburg Concerto. He said, “It’s weird, a very high trumpet,” and he’d never heard it before. It wasn’t a piccolo trumpet. In Bach’s day it was a D trumpet. They used a piccolo nowadays because it’s much easier. And so he said he would like to have orchestral instruments and orchestras on the record. John couldn’t be bothered. When we did “I Am the Walrus” he said: “I want you to put some musicians on this.” I said: “What you want then, John?” He said: “A bit of brass, a bit of cello, you know, your usual stuff.” I said: “Do you want to sit with me and work it out?” He said: “That’s your job.” The “Sgt Pepper” one Paul again would hum something and I would take it down.

Do you remember the horn quartet coming in?

Not really. It’s 40 years ago. Your memory is always coloured by things you see again. So you see photographs of Paul conducting the four horns. He wanted to get a photograph of himself conducting. He didn’t actually do it. Neil Sanders and Jim Buck are the ones I remember. And they were good players.

Did they respect the Beatles as musicians?

I think after a time everybody did. They would get a little bit fed up with hanging around and doing the same thing over and over again. They had to put up with it because that was the way they did things. They were getting paid.

How about the lovely horn moment at the end of “Goodnight” on The White Album?

It’s just using a horn orchestrally. It’s no great shakes. It’s not a solo. It’s not like writing a concerto. In doing orchestral music you use whatever colour comes to your mind for a particular thing. A horn is a great part of my musical palette.

And yet it’s doing something differently in all those songs. What colour does it have for you?

The nicest thing about it is it hasn’t got any ragged edges. It’s a nice mellow sound that you can use either forcefully if you’re really triple forte and half-stopping and so on. Or it can be terribly serene. Unlike an oboe which is always a bit nasal and cutting.

What did you want on “Sgt Pepper”?

Oh, slightly declamatory, slightly brass-bandish in fact, because it was like a street band. That’s what it should have been. In dissecting all the sounds, you have their voices pretty separate and the horn overdubs you could take off, as we did, and use them again and again. We used them in “Lucy”, for example. It’s good because “Lucy” without that is not terribly interesting. It’s the same thing over and over again. Actually we recorded “Lucy” very very quickly. In those days I was terribly economical about using musicians. I didn’t like to waste their time, nor to waste EMI’s money, which is a bit silly because it wasn’t my money. “Something” was one of five scores that I overdubbed and recorded in an afternoon, and I’d saved them all up so that I could do five scores with quite a large orchestra instead of doing one score per session. I got £25 per score for that.

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